Monday, October 18, 2010

Planet Narnia - Did It Work?

Short answer: not for me. I am impressed – astounded, in fact, at the complexity of what was attempted. I fully acknowledge that if I were a better reader, more attentive and absorbing of atmosphere rather than hurrying on, I might have received some of what Lewis offers. But I am not that reader, and most of what was intended passed right over me.

Yet not all. I did pick up some of the tone-changes among the books. I did notice the increased humor and laughter, the contrasts between female characters, and certainly the theme of fertility, mothers, and life, in The Magician’s Nephew. But associating this with Venus never crossed my mind, and the many other elements that suggest that goddess – copper, redness, beauty, apples, flame, magic, sweetness, breath, flowers – went likewise right over my head. This is largely because I never knew these were associated with her, even though I read a fair bit of medieval literature. Again, I was not a good and attentive reader of those works. I largely read them for class, looking for great themes to make sure I included in my blue book on the exam.

But I should have, absolutely kick myself for not noticing, all those people rising up out of pools all the time in that work. Heavy-handed, almost comical, yet I missed it. I note that happens with the theology in Narnia as well. The sacrifice and resurrection in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe seemed too blatant and exact for me (the Stone Table representing the law seemed about the right amount of obviousness) - yet apparently a large percentage of readers don't make the connection. And it is a children's book for a post-Christian culture, after all.

People who received Narnia differently may have caught much more of the planetary flavors and atmospheres of each than I did. I read Lewis after Tolkien, and came expecting another Middle-Earth. I expected connectedness rather than episodes in various moods. Yet in fairness, without the hobbits tying the whole LOTR narrative together, the atmospheres of locale in Tolkien, though much more intense, might not have charmed so much. An adventure in Rohan without hobbits, followed by an adventure in Moria, might not interest, even though both were leading to some common end. I’ll go farther. Those adventures, even peopled and connected by Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, and Legolas, wouldn’t grip in the same way, despite all the attention to names, history, and geography. The homeliness of the hobbits, and our identification with them in fairy-tale fashion as the inconsequential persons caught up in great events, make the story. Tolkien grabbed a break there by starting with Bilbo's adventure, charming, but originally not much related to the greater events in his world - his preference for Silmarillion-style mythology is not shared by most of his readers.

Lewis's thread of connection among characters in the stories is much more intentional, and actually more deft.

Also, I don’t tend to read description. I tend to notice more of it on subsequent readings, but even then I skim adjectives. I don’t envision so much when I read – I’m seeking the conversation and I hear. I am also thinking about plot in the background the whole time, and with Lewis, noticing how theological themes are working themselves out in the story. A detailed description of a castle storeroom would likely just be Right. Swords, carpets, rich clothing. Some dust, characters recognise them from previous adventure. Got it. The illustrations don’t suggest much atmosphere – they don’t suggest much of anything to me, frankly. I would have preferred fewer and more detailed, or none at all.

But my sons were introduced to the Narniad by having it read aloud, then reading it to themselves, having it read aloud again four years later, then reading it to themselves again. Even though I would have put my energy into the conversation, I wouldn’t have omitted the descriptions, and some of the flavor differences might have penetrated for them at a less-conscious level. In reader’s theater or radio theater, even I picture the events more (because you have to). I suspect there would be more of that if it were being read with description.

Note on the text of Planet Narnia: I’ve got a pretty significant vocabulary, but Ward uses words I have never seen before. Scouring a few consecutive pages to make this point, I encountered “Hudibrastic,” “hesychastic,” and “monoscopy.” There are also terms used primarily in specific fields, such as “anaphora” or “polysemous” for literature, “monophysite” for theology, and “hydragyrum” for chemistry, that I hesitated over and had to run a quick search for in the brain. Plus Latin at least once per paragraph. Perhaps such are necessary, or they are common in more academic works that I just don’t expose myself to. I don’t mind such words as “lugubrious,” and “heuristic” which are rare but at least general. It still seems a bit much, though.

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